ANCHORAGE — Gaps in knowledge are a target for University of Alaska Fairbanks research, says Mark Myers, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Myers, who oversees administration of the university’s $123 million per year research budget, told an Aug. 6 field hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee at the U.S. Coast Guard base in Kodiak that the number one research priority is “oil spill response in the Arctic.”
That includes looking at new and emerging technology, understanding oil and building better predictive models of where oil would flow to be able to better monitor oil, “should we get a worst-case scenario” of an oil spill, he said.
Myers said the target of this research isn’t the current exploration stage, but 10 or 15 years out, when he expects “the development of a year-round production from the OCS.”
The university has “invested quite significantly” in building those capabilities and filling those gaps, he said.
Fundamental oceanographic research and partnerships are also a priority, Myers said.
He also listed understanding social drivers, damage and resiliency as a focus, and said based on the Macondo spill, better communication was something that is needed.
“How do we develop better approaches of bidirectional communications with the communities, how do we pump out reliable information to communities that they trust” so there can be data coming to communities “so they can be part of the solution and engaged early on.”
Climate change concerns
In opening remarks Myers noted major changes in environmental conditions combined with “a significant drive toward resource development in the circumpolar Arctic, a lot of that driven by oil and gas potential.” He also cited mineral deposits in the Arctic and possibilities for increased shipping.
He said the changes are “really about water,” with longer open water seasons.
A related issue is permafrost, which Myers described as “the glue that holds the Arctic coast together.” He said that as temperatures warm and permafrost is lost, “the coast erodes much more quickly.”
The Coast Guard plays a significant role in Arctic research with the Cutter Healy, which can carry some 35 scientists and has “tremendous laboratory capacity,” he said, calling it “basically our major Arctic research vessel that can work in the areas of the North” where there is still ice, with the capacity to break about four and a half feet of ice.
“That vessel is also the only working icebreaker we have, so if it’s called off for other search and rescue areas, the scientific missions must quit,” Myers said. “It’s crucial that we build systems that can work under ice,” Myers said, because much of the year the coast is still ice covered.
There is a need to understand what’s under the ice so if a catastrophic oil spill were to occur, “we’d be able to model it and actually map the movement of that oil under ice.” He said it’s also important “to understand the ecological changes that are occurring under the ice.”
There are new technologies and approaches where universities are in the forefront, he said, adding that it was important that the Coast Guard start adapting technologies such as the ability to launch small unmanned vehicles off their ships.
On the social side, Myers said the university operates community colleges in the rural communities and has “strong established relationships with these communities of trust and collaborative education ... (and) science where the communities participate.”
He said on issues of resiliency in communities and response to change, disasters and search and rescue, “The university could play a really big role working with the Coast Guard in terms of building better relationships and more resiliency in local communities.”